Helen Macdonald has won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for H is For Hawk (Jonathan Cape), making it the first time a memoir has won the award.
Author and historian Claire Tomalin, chair of the judging panel, said Macdonald had written a “book unlike any other”.
Macdonald was announced as the winner of the £20,000 prize this evening (4th November) at a ceremony at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London.
H is For Hawk tells the story of how the death of Macdonald’s father triggered her to follow a childhood dream and become a falconer, obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. It is also a biography of the troubled novelist T H White, author of The Goshawk, in which he describes his own struggle to train a hawk. The Bookseller’s Caroline Sanderson called H is For Hawk a “deep, dark work of terrible beauty that will open fissures in the stoniest heart”.
Tomalin said: “Congratulations to Helen Macdonald, who has written a book unlike any other, about an obsession with a wild creature, brought to life in prose sometimes technical and always striking, and set in English landscapes observed with a visionary eye. Writing about wild life and the environment has never been better or better informed than this.”
The judges for this year’s prize were MP Alan Johnson, Financial Times books editor Lorien Kite, philosopher Ray Monk and historian Ruth Scurr.
This year’s shortlist included four female authors, the most in the prize’s history. They were Marion Coutts for The Iceberg: A Memoir (Atlantic); Alison Light for Common People (Fig Tree); and Caroline Moorehead for Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France (Chatto & Windus).
The other shortlisted titles were John Campbell’s biography Roy Jenkins (Jonathan Cape) and Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity (Oneworld);
Last year’s prize was won by Lucy Hughes-Hallett for The Pike (Fourth Estate).